Charge of the Bile Brigade

Americans flit from one controversy to the next with little context or objectivity.

WASHINGTON - JUNE 22: Moderator Brian Williams watches a video which pays tribute to late moderator Tim Russert during a taping of 'Meet the Press' at the NBC studios June 22, 2008 in Washington, DC. Williams announced that former Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw would temporarily host the show through the presidential elections in November, 2008. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press) (National Journal)

On a self-publishing platform that gives everybody a voice, President Obama's former speechwriter, Jon Favreau, says we may be wasting our collective breath. "We've now spent a week re-litigating the wisdom of vaccines, the Crusades, and Brian Williams' memory," he tweeted. "No wonder we never get shit done."

Funny tweet, a cheeky take on two Republican-related controversies and a third one generated by the ego of NBC anchor Brian Williams. I retweeted and "favorited" Favreau for mocking the Outrage Machine—a new media-fed industry of inflated and manufactured controversies. Wanted: Eyeballs and clicks. No context or objectivity required.

Two GOP presidential hopefuls giving credence to the discredited anti-vaccination movement. Obama clumsily comparing Islamic extremist to medieval Christian crusaders. A news anchor embellishing his experiences as a journalist. These are legitimate news stories, not signs of the Apocalypse, and yet the coverage has an End Times vibe.

Ebola, Ferguson, Ukraine, and Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Bridgegate and Benghazi, the IRS, the NSA, The Interview and campus rape. The Islamic State is a "JV squad," and "you will be able to keep your doctor."

Deflated balls!

Into each story charged the Bile Brigade. Rumors, falsehoods, and rushed judgments poured into the public square, overwhelming discerning Americans who still desire solid reporting and thoughtful opinions. I am part of the problem: As a political columnist and Twitter junkie, I'm not always sure whether I'm adding to or subtracting from the debate.

Are vaccinations harmful? Can I get Ebola? Ask those questions on social media, and you'll likely get mocked. Try to find the answers on a growing legion of partisan news sites, and you'll likely be misled.

So we give up. We feed the beast or ignore it and grow numb.

Increasing numbers of Americans view news through an ideological lens, preferring their press polarized on social media and cable TV. Among the U.S. social institutions steadily losing the public's faith since the 1960s, the media often is listed at the least-trusted. These are not unrelated facts.

Long before the Internet, sociologists identified a quirk in human nature that made people afraid of expressing an opinion in public—or even among their family, friends, and work colleagues—when they considered themselves in the minority. It's called the "spiral of silence."

Many people, myself included, thought social media would help people overcome their inhibition and create a more vibrant public discussion. Testing that hypothesis, the Pew Research Center surveyed 1,801 adults about Edward Snowden and leaks about surveillance at the National Security Agency. At the time, Americans were divided over whether his actions were justified and whether the surveillance itself was a good idea.

The results: People were less willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in social media than they were in person. In both online and off-line settings, people were more willing to share their views if they thought their audience agreed with them.

"This suggests a spiral of silence might spill over from online contexts to in-person contexts, though our data cannot definitively demonstrate this causation," Pew reported. "It also might mean that the broad awareness social-media users have of their networks might make them more hesitant to speak up because they are especially tuned into the opinions of those around them.

Where does this leave us? First, we don't trust the old media. Second, new media has made it easier for Americans to pull apart, and we're no more likely to speak up. My hope is that as the new platforms evolve, the public will adapt and technology will be used as it has so many times in the past: To educate and unite the masses. This can't happen fast enough. We've got a lot of stuff to do.